Two years ago, when reviewing Salman Rushdie’s eighteenth novel, The Golden House, I had written about how Rushdie – then in his 70th year – was at the cusp of something new. Rushdie’s oeuvre can roughly be divided into two parts. The early Rushdie was angrier and radical. But most importantly, that Rushdie’s imagination was moored in the twin cities of Bombay and that other city in the west, which Gibreel Farishta, the protagonist of The Satanic Verses had called “proper London, the capital of Vilayet.”
But in the years since, this proverbial capital of Vilayet has changed. While the midnight’s children – of whom Rushdie is a member – have either passed on, or have reached the twilight of their years, so has their world. And for them, London was that “great, rotting, beautiful, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny, Babylon, Alphaville.” Now that old Babylon has become a caricature, desperate to sever its ties to the continent in whose lap the random gods of geography had placed the country in. And, in a true Rushdiesque fashion, unable to do so. Vilayet is now America.
It is here where a rush of novels Rushdie began to be set. This later Rushdie is also angry, albeit less radical, and seems to be obsessed with the quest to capture the soul of his new home, and, by extension, grapple with the present moment. His nineteenth novel, Quichotte, is his latest attempt at this endeavour.
There is, however, a difference. London was the former master of Bombay, and in that vein, seemed distant. Its people and its problems did not seem at all to be like the ones in Bombay. The Irish writer and cultural commentator Fintan O’Toole recently wrote about the nature of British nationalism, which lies at the heart of Brexit. This British nationalism has been centred on a certain mythicization of defeat, exemplified in works such as Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, or more famously, in the poster boy of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If.
This is markedly different from the experience of nationalism one finds in India and in the United States. The Indian variety of nationalism has always had a streak of self-importance attached to it. This streak has transmogrified into cultural chauvinism now. And it is this chauvinism – always exclusionary – which is found in parallel in the United States too.
Which is why Bombay turned into Mumbai is closer to New York than one might think, closer to that all too familiar feeling of being a home away from home. Rushdie’s Quichotte is at once a paean to this twin world of India and America and an excoriating examination of this bewildering moment where these three geographies – India, the United States, and Britain – have met, almost to have formed an unholy triangle of sorts.
If his previous novel, The Golden House was a homage to F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic, The Great Gatsby, Quichotte is written as a homage to Miguel Cervantes’s 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote. A book-within-a-book, the plot of Rushdie’s latest novel is almost impossible to summarise. At the outset, it is a picaresque tale of Ismail Smile – an ageing wanderer who is obsessed with television to a point where he can no longer differentiate between what is real and what is not – and his singular quest to find and woo the object of his affection, his Dulcinea del Toboso, an Indian-American actress turned talk show host, named Salma R. In this quest he chooses to call himself Quichotte and also conjures up his fictive son, whom he christens Sancho, because, well, every itinerant knight must have a companion.
There is a careful play of words here. “Ismail” in the Americanised version means “smile”, but as every Indian would also know, that if the word “smile” is pronounced the desi way, it would roughly be “is-smile”. Such playfulness, for Rushdie, isn’t an example of linguistic sleight-of-hand, but a very real demonstration of the intricate knots that have tied the world together.
The playing doesn’t stop here – Rushdie takes it a notch higher, and some more. To begin with, Ismail’s nome-de-plume is carefully chosen. It isn’t Quixote, a name Cervantes gave, but derived instead from an early 20th century French opera by Jules Massent, named Don Quichotte. Privileging an adaption, instead of the original novel, as a source allows Rushdie the chance to subtly ease the reader into a hallucinatory world where the difference between truth and the translation of that truth has become ever more blurry.
And yet, he doesn’t stop there. By the second chapter itself it becomes clear that the story of Quichotte/Ismail/Salma is nothing but a work of fiction being written by another ageing second-rate espionage thriller writer, whom Rushdie chooses to just call Brother, but who uses the pseudonym of Sam DuChamp. Sam DuChamp’s story arc in the novel – as also does Quichotte’s – is a product of a dysfunctional family and relationships which have crumbled over time, either because of long-held grievances or just plain and simple pettiness.
The Zeitgeist of the present
If Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was about the best of times and the worst of times – in other words, an age of contradiction – then Quichotte occurs in the age of what Rushdie calls “Anything-Can-Happen.” It is an age devoid of rules, where events and the people sandwiched between events are all in free fall, it is an age where
“old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your new besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections. A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man start living with an owl. A beauty might fall asleep and, when kissed, wake up speaking a different language and in that new language reveal a completely altered character. A flood might drown your city. A tornado might carry your house to a faraway land where, upon landing, it would squash a witch. Criminals could become kings and kings be unmasked as criminals. A man might discover that the woman he lived with was his father’s illegitimate child. A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents.”
Closer to home, in this age of Anything-Can-Happen, there might well be no difference between the discipline of political science and “entire political science”, and someone with a degree in the latter might well be better than the one in the former. In this age, one could very well be lynched with the mere suspicion of having meat in one’s refrigerator, and even be booked by the police for it, as if death itself wasn’t enough! In fact, there might not be much difference between night and day, and one could be confused for the other.
But, and this is most crucial to Rushdie, this age of Anything-Can-Happen also entails the absolute erasure between the real and the unreal, the original from its copy, to a point where the certain idea of truth – so crucial to the western project of Enlightenment – has evaporated completely. And Rushdie in Quichotte does not restrict its examination only to the socio-political realm, but takes a sledgehammer to rip open its many myriad philosophical implications.
At one point in the novel, when Sancho – Quichotte’s imaginary child and his travelling companion – takes up the narrative, he observes that not only can he read Quichotte’s memories, but, at the same time, can also perceive the buried presence of “someone else” inside Quichotte’s head.
“But who or what is this third person? I’m just going to say this the way it comes to me to say it, even though it makes no sense and makes me sound…unreliable. It feels to me, at those moments when I have this sense of a stranger, as if there’s somebody under slash behind slash above the old man. Somebody – yes – making him the way he made me. Somebody putting his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his memories into the old man the way the old man put that stuff inside me. In which case whose life am I remembering here? The old man’s or the phantom’s?”
There are multiple layers here. On one hand, Sancho is the product of Quichotte’s imagination, and is himself searching for his own identity, what he calls his own memories inside Quichotte’s. And Quichotte and Sancho are also imagined into being by their author, Sam DuChamp, who himself has been written into literature by Salman Rushdie.
Who’s writing whom?
But it doesn’t end there. The question of authorship is central to this novel, as it is in other Rushdie novels. Because Rushdie draws a straight line connecting the literary question of authorship with the metaphysical question of god and “goodness”, a theme that is, of course, more ubiquitous in The Satanic Verses. Here, however, it takes on a different dimension altogether.
In 1967, the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes wrote an explosive essay that, in many ways, brought postmodernism into the field of literary criticism. The essay, titled The Death of the Author, argued for the impossibility of interpreting a literary text based on the author’s identity – as was the norm at the time, when criticism taking into account the writer’s biographical details to illuminate the text.
But for Barthes, the author’s identity is meaningless, because no text is ever original. He proclaims that a text has no fixed meaning, or what he terms “theological meaning”, equating the idea of the author as that of god; multiple meanings are possible, precisely because a text is made up of citations, whether intended or unintended.
But the point is that Barthes was writing in the 1960s when Europe and America were going through a period when the status quo was being questioned, culminating in the student riots of 1968. At that time, Barthes’s essay resonated with the public for its strong anti-authoritarian stance.
But Rushdie here is more nuanced, and one can feel a certain palpable tension in the novel. That tension owes its existence to the fact that 2019 is a different world altogether. The zeitgeist of the present, which Rushdie seeks to captures fully in the novel, is about a world where reality is itself in flux. And this is not restricted to the narrow idiom of fake news, for instance, but is, rather, all-pervasive.
In fact, artificial intelligence has grabbed the notion of reality and pushed its head into the gutter. Deepfake technology, for instance, has taken the idea of fakeness to a point where anyone can be made to say anything, if video evidence is all that we need. Snd such concerns must surely be at the back of Rushdie’s mind, because the novel is suffused with references to science fiction.
The character of Sancho, for example, in many ways resembles the protagonist of Spielberg’s film AI: The Artificial Intelligence, who was similarly obsessed with the desire to become “real”, and thus takes a long journey to meet the blue fairy who might grant him this desire to be a real boy.
If questioning the author and dismissing that notion altogether was liberating in the 1960s, the same notion has become deeply problematic in the present, when, because there is no author, everything becomes permissible. But the inherent tension in Quichotte, which was expressed more fully in Rushdie’s previous novel The Golden House, is also the danger of this authorial figure devolving into a “bombastic” person, something we find in abundance in the present as well through a line-up of authoritarian figures from Trump, through Erdogan and Putin, to Modi.
Quichotte, of course, offers no answers, because truly there aren’t any. This philosophical fix is going to be the mainstay of this century. As a worthy novel, Rushdie’s new work gives us the liberty and the space to question and ruminate, and to take pleasure in the complexity of the world, something that has also taken a beating in this present age of Anything-Can-Happen. In thios way, Quichotte also gives us a glimpse into the vast possibilities that literature offers.
Quichotte, Salman Rushdie, Penguin Hamish Hamilton.